One putt to win $10 million. Who do you choose?
Imagine this dream game show scenario.
You have to pick one player, male or female, from any point in golf history. They have one chance to make a putt of randomly-chosen distance. If it goes in, you win $10 million.
Who do you choose?
Let’s examine some possible nominees for this pressure-packed task, and the numbers behind why that player might be your best option. The player can be from any frozen period in time, if the contestant so chooses. There’s no way to encapsulate every possible winning choice, but here are a few the numbers suggest:
JASON DAY IN 2016
In golf’s modern statistical era, Jason Day’s 2016 performance on the greens is unmatched. Day averaged 1.13 strokes gained putting per round in ’15-16, the best single-season performance in the 16-year history of the metric.
The distance between Day’s 1.13 and the second-best campaign is gigantic – Jesper Parnevik comes in second, averaging 0.98 per round in 2007. The difference between first and second in this instance is equivalent to the gap between Parnevik and 17th place on the all-time single-season list.
Between 10 and 15 feet is where Day really separated himself from the pack. In the 2015-16 PGA Tour season, the make percentage from that distance was about 29%. Day made a staggering 41.2% of his putts from that length. He also led the Tour that season in average distance of putts made per round, total putting and strokes gained total.
INBEE PARK, 2008-18
The most accomplished professional player of the 2010s was not Rory McIlroy or Brooks Koepka – it was Inbee Park, who at one point from 2013 to 2015 went 6-for-15 in major championships.
In less than a decade’s time, Inbee won what the LPGA defines as the Grand Slam and the Olympic gold medal, all before turning 30. No player, man or woman, won more professional majors in the 2010s than Inbee did.
From 2008 to 2017, Inbee led the LPGA in putts per green in regulation seven times. In an 11-year stretch, she ranked worse than seventh in that statistic just once.
An eight-time PGA Tour winner, Faxon was regarded as one of the best putters of his era. The numbers suggest he may be one of the greatest putters in the history of the sport.
From 1990 to 2006, Faxon ranked in the top-ten on the PGA Tour in putts per round 12 different times. He averaged fewer than 28.3 putts per round from ’95 through ’06, best of any player with 450 or more rounds played during that span. In eight different seasons, Faxon ranked seventh or better in putts per green in regulation.
Strokes gained putting was only tracked for three of Faxon’s full seasons on the PGA Tour, but during that time span (2004-06), he averaged 0.66 strokes gained per round. That remains the best average of any player with 200 or more career rounds measured from 2004 onward.
JORDAN SPIETH FROM 15 TO 25 FEET
At his pinnacle, Spieth was brilliant with his irons and a savant putting from mid-range. If it felt like he was making every putt he looked at during his run from 2015 to 2017, your gut instinct isn’t far from reality.
Spieth made a ridiculous 24.3% of his putts from 15 to 25 feet in those three PGA Tour seasons. The PGA Tour average in that span was under 16%.
The second-best putter from that distance, among players with 100 or more rounds from 2015-2017, was Ernie Els at 20.8%. The difference between Spieth and Els was the same as the gap between Els and 41st place.
BEN CRENSHAW AT AUGUSTA NATIONAL
Spieth’s early rise to prominence at Augusta National is credited some to fellow Texas Longhorn Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner who has imparted sage advice to his younger counterpart.
In 1995, Crenshaw won The Masters without a single three-putt all week, something that has not been accomplished by any of the last 20 champions. He led the PGA Tour in putts per round in 1982, and from 1980-84, only three players had a better putting average than he did. Crenshaw played in 44 Masters in his career – his last being in 2015 – a Tournament appropriately won by Spieth.
TIGER WOODS WITH A 54-HOLE LEAD
Many people’s automatic, slam-dunk reaction to this proposition would be, “Easy. Tiger Woods.”
Our memories are flooded with clutch Tiger Woods putts throughout the years: the 2008 wobbler at Torrey Pines to get into the Monday playoff, the “point and run” putt at the PGA Championship against Bob May, and so on.
But a dive into the numbers say something different than what the narrative suggests. Sure, Tiger has had countless incredible clutch moments with the putter. But overall, it was his iron play that had the bigger impact when he held the lead entering the final round.
There are 27 instances since 2004 where Woods held the 54-hole lead entering Sunday. During those final rounds, Woods averaged 2.21 strokes gained tee-to-green, while just 0.15 strokes gained putting.
If you like more traditional numbers, consider this: Tiger hit 73% of his greens in regulation during those final rounds. The PGA Tour average is just about 66%. He averaged 1.79 putts per G.I.R. in those final rounds – the Tour average for that statistic is actually a little better, at 1.61.
Sometimes, mythology and memories can override the actual numbers.
Speaking of Tiger, can you name the only player since World War II to win a PGA Tour event by a greater margin than Woods? That would be Bobby Locke, who won in 1948 in Chicago by 16 strokes – one more than Woods’ 15-shot conquest at the 2000 U.S. Open.
“No matter how well I might play the long shots, if I couldn’t putt I would never win.” – Bobby Locke
The South African was a force on golf’s early global stage, winning The Open Championship four times from 1949 to 1957. He’s credited with eleven PGA Tour victories from 1947 through 1949 – four of which by a margin of at least four strokes. He’s also credited with coining the phrase, “Drive for show, putt for dough.”
Locke certainly did throughout his career, using a non-traditional putting style and wielding exorbitant confidence in his abilities. “Always have dinner with good putters,” Locke once said. “They always talk about holing putts, never their misses.”
JACK NICKLAUS IN A MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP
Sometimes, the simplest answer can also be the right one. Detailed statistics for the era of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player are sparse, but nobody comes close to 18 major championships – and 19 more runner-up finishes in majors – without holing putts when it matters most.
“It’s like a Cadillac being chased by a bunch of Volkswagens,” notably great putter George Low said of Jack in 1977. “Nobody’s even close. Any tournament he’s in, I expect him to win.”
Picking a prime Golden Bear to make a big putt? Always a good option.